My first day of school is crystallized in a now 30-year-old photograph taken by my father, of me and my friends Mark, Clint, and Chris on our first day of preschool. Ready to become Pooh Bears at the Kinderschule in Wadesville, Indiana, we stand holding hands in front of the entrance. Mark is wearing a powder blue polo shirt with matching shorts. Clint has on a striped tank top. Chris has his mouth open as if he was talking, and I’m about to insert my index finger into my mouth, my version of thumb-sucking. I remember nothing from this day, but the wary, apprehensive look on my face in that photo describes the moment perfectly.
What you remember from your first day of school is cobbled together from what your parents told you, from images in your mind of what the school looked like, which friends were there, and how much you liked your teachers. But most often it’s defined by the photos, which replace the memories themselves. When I was a kid, I assumed my dad took pictures like this expressly to torture me and my sister. No trip was complete without a family photo posed in front of a row of bushes at my grandparents’, standing against a railing over a scenic outlook in the Smoky Mountains, or backs to a sunset on a Florida beach. Now that I have my own kids I understand why he did this. He needed to take those pictures to remember being there, to make sure it really happened, because our real memory falls apart so quickly.
Like any modern-era, gadget-geek parent, I’m determined to amass as much photographic and video evidence of my kids’ early lives as possible. I’m not as obsessed with capturing the posed, holiday card-worthy shots as my dad was, but I do make sure I have the camera ready on the big days. My problem is that I tend to blow the important photos of the important moments. On my son Carter’s first day of part-time preschool, I brought the good camera but the battery died as I tried to capture him and my wife Debbie opening the school door. Instead, my record of that day is an iPhone shot of Debbie hunched over Carter, clutching him by the waist to keep him from squirming away. The day he started full-time preschool was also the day after our daughter Sadie was born, so the version of that day isn’t even at the school. I’m just holding him outside our house—squinting into the sun while my mother-in-law held the camera—because I was in a rush to get back to the hospital. And when Sadie started daycare this year I didn’t even try. Poor second child: her memory of her first day of school will be another iPhone photo of a frazzled me, trying to drop her off in time so I wouldn’t be late to work, clutching her while she clutches a wad of chest hair at my collar.
Carter started kindergarten a few weeks ago, and I was determined to get a proper shot of him on his big day. I made sure the camera’s battery was fully charged and all lenses and memory disks were in working order. We stopped outside the school, and Debbie and I took turns posing with an arm around him. Both photos would make my dad proud: we were all smiling, eyes open, looking at the camera, framed well and in focus. We were obviously testing Carter’s patience though, because he tugged us inside as soon as we let go of him. But I got what I wanted. My kid was excited to start school, and the look on his face in those pictures tells the story. I wonder now how he’ll remember that day himself.
I took the week off work before that so Carter and I could spend the last week of summer together. We did Chicago things: went to Shedd Aquarium and the beach, ate corned beef and potato pancakes at Manny’s Deli, saw a movie and played catch at the park. On Friday, I took him to the Skydeck at the top of the Sears/Willis Tower. We walked around the observation deck, looking out the windows as I pointed out landmarks like US Cellular Field, the aquarium, and the Hancock Tower. His favorite part was the new glass boxes that jut out from the west side of the building so you can walk out and look straight down at Wacker Drive.
From that vantage point, we could look out over the highway to the West Loop and see our house. I squatted next to Carter for nearly 20 minutes, trying to get him to see where we live. I pointed out landmarks like the park and the neighborhood Walgreen’s, and tried to get him to follow his eyes along Monroe Street to our block, but when he’d say he found it he’d be pointing at Rush Hospital or the United Center instead. I finally took a picture of our townhouse complex with my digital camera and zoomed in on the screen to show him what the orange brick and silver roofing looked like.
Parents do so many things to their kids because it’s important to the parent, not the child. I thought it was important that Carter could see our house from that distance. He swore he saw it, but I’m not sure he ever did, or whether he even cared. He just thought it was awesome to stand on a piece of glass 103 stories above the street. In the same way, I look at the pictures we took on his first day of kindergarten and remember one version, and he’ll remember another. Like my dad, I just needed to take the perfect picture to prove that we were there.